It's been 5 years since Croatia entered the European Union – years in which the nationalist right came back to power and Zagreb abandoned the policy of reconciliation with the countries of the region
On the eve of Croatia's entry into the European Union, on July 1st, 2013, then President of the European Commission José Barroso, in addition to expressing appreciation for the difficult reforms undertaken, congratulated Zagreb for reaching out for reconciliation. Prime Minister Zoran Milanović made a point to mention, among other things, that in times of historical revisionism the values of the common antifascist struggle united the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. President Ivo Josipović greeted the advent of a bright future, recalling the pacifist nature of the European project.
In previous years, Croatia had actually carried out a policy of reconciliation in the region and pursued greater collaboration with the Hague Tribunal, the main actors being President Ivo Josipović and the governments of Ivo Sanader and Jadranka Kosor, led by the centre-right HDZ, which seemed to have left behind the most aggressive elements of nationalism in the 1990s. Although without great popular enthusiasm, the entry into the Union – even at a time of crisis for the European project and of a dramatic economic situation for Croatia – signalled the end of a process that had lasted more than a decade, both due to the uncertainties of European politics and Croatia's failure to comply with some of the necessary conditions, including full cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. But shadows were still present, as testified by the concert of Croatian right-wing singer Marko Perković Thompson, that filled the Poljud stadium in Split while official celebrations were taking place in the main square of Zagreb.
After the EU entry
As countless commentators have noted, since entering the European Union, Croatia has begun to look backwards. A selective reinterpretation of the past has made a strong comeback as a reason for division, fostering hate speech and acting as a sounding board for anti-progressive values. A few months after the country gained membership, a violent movement rose in Vukovar against the affixing of plaques written in the Cyrillic alphabet, aimed at the Serbian minority. As early as 2014, a report by the Documenta study centre highlighted how the process of reconciliation had already stopped.
In 2014, a right-hand turn loomed in the country with Kolinda Grabar Kitarović's election as president. As early as 2012, Tomislav Karamarko had ousted Jadranka Kosor from the HDZ presidency, marking a clear shift of the party towards an authoritarian, aggressively nationalist policy of direct confrontation with opponents. In 2015, the victory of the HDZ itself in coalition with the Most party led to the formation of the non-party government led by Tihomir Orešković. The government, which lasted nine months, was described as a counter-revolution due to the presence of the ultraconservative and nationalist right, embodied by Minister of Culture Zlatko Hasanbegović.
The fall of the Orešković government was marked by Karamarko's replacement as head of the HDZ party with moderate Andrej Plenković, coming from the European diplomacy, which would soon also become prime minister. However, the traumatic elements of Croatian history, appropriately exploited, have continued to play a leading role in public debate.
That the Croatian government's relationship with the Hague Tribunal had turned into one of selective opposition was testified by the reactions to the suicide of former Bosnian Croat General Slobodan Praljak, which took place on live broadcast immediately after his 20-year sentence for crimes of war and against humanity against Bosniak civilians. On that occasion, the highest officials of the Croatian state expressed regret for the sentence and re-evaluated the figure of Praljak, whose public commemoration was attended by prominent figures, including two ministers.
From the post-war period until today, the myth of domovinski rat, "patriotic war" – a definition used to indicate the war of the 1990s in Croatia – has become the main pillar of national identity construction. The idea that the patriotic war is a founding moment of the Croatian nation, in addition to being present in the Constitution, was reiterated in 2000 by the Parliament in a Declaration emphasising the defensive nature of the conflict as a consequence of an invasion by Yugoslavia (at the time, formed by Serbia and Montenegro) and of the activity of internal separatists. On August 5th – day of the first victory in the Operation Tempest of 1995 – Croatia celebrates the Day of Victory and Patriotic Thanksgiving, with increasingly divisive celebrations and, in some cases, an open exaltation of the Croatian independent state (NDH), while in neighbouring Serbia the Operation Storm is identified with ethnic cleansing aimed at expelling the Krajine Serbs.
In 2017, the president of the Zagreb Regional Court Ivan Turudić, in an interview with newspaper Večernji list, proposed to punish with prison those who deny the defensive nature of the patriotic war and who define the Operation Storm as a case of ethnic cleansing. More fuss was raised by the case involving popular TV journalist Aleksandar Stanković, guilty of asking veteran Predrag Mišić Peđa, a Serb from Vukovar who fought with the Croatian units, if the "patriotic war" had been at least in part also a civil war. In fact, Mišić and his brother had found themselves on opposite sides of the barricades. This was followed by the revolt of the veterans' associations, enraged by a question that seemed to raise doubts on a dogmatic truth. Shortly afterwards, the Croatian public service distanced itself from Stanković, recalling the duty of all journalists to abide by the provisions of the Declaration on the Patriotic War.
The idea that the most controversial moments in recent Croatian history must be sculpted black and white with documents also underlies the work of the Council for the confrontation of the consequences of non-democratic regimes, a committee of experts with different profiles, with a large right-wing component. The Council was called, after a few months' work, to provide guidelines to position the official Croatian memory with respect to the legacy of communism and nazi-fascism. In February 2018, the Council presented its theses, the result of its work on the symbols of totalitarian regimes. The conclusion was that the greeting "Za dom spremni" [Ready for the fatherland], emblem of the ustaša state, would be considered unconstitutional, but may be used in some situations, particularly those related to the HOS crest, a paramilitary militia born in 1991, then integrated into the Croatian army. On the contrary, the symbols of communism, such as the five-pointed star, although not clearly unconstitutional, as an expression of the legacy of anti-fascism also present in the Croatian constitution, would recall violations of human rights and mass crimes, and might be prohibited on certain occasions.
The Council's conclusion reflects one of the directives followed by Croatian public memory in recent years: to carry on a revisionist discourse corroding from within the antifascist values that had survived the years of Tuđman, rejecting in its entirety the legacy of socialist Yugoslavia and silently legitimising the Croatian independent state. And where there is the need to anchor the memory of some issues to national documents and positions, we witness the questioning of historical phenomena, such as the Holocaust, the interpretation of which should be consolidated.
This is the case of a thesis, not supported by any scientific evidence and put forward by an obscure association, the Jasenovac Triple Field Research Society, according to which Jasenovac was an extermination camp not during the NDH, when it served as a labour camp, but during the communist regime. Recently, Igor Vukić's book The Jasenovac labour camp has found space in the national media and has been presented in prestigious venues such as the Zagreb Journalism House.
Jasenovac has turned into a site of contested memory, a condition exemplified by the fact that the Jewish community, the Serbian community, and anti-fascist groups have boycotted the official celebrations for some years now, because of the public atmosphere of tolerance towards the legacy of the Croatian independent state. In 2017, the affixing of a plaque hailing the HOS militia with the salute "Za dom spremni" in Jasenovac, a place symbolising the extermination by the ustaša regime had stirred great concern. After months of discussions, the Plenković government did nothing but decree its displacement to a neighbouring municipality a dozen kilometres away and establish the Council for the confrontation with the consequences of non-democratic regimes.
The other way round?
Historical revisionism in Croatian public narrative frequently seems to simply overturn the Manichaean narrative characteristic of socialist Yugoslavia, switching the good and bad guys. During a recent trip to Argentina, Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, speaking in the presence of the Croatian diaspora, recalled those "who sought in the South American country a space of freedom in which to testify their patriotism and emphasise their legitimate requests for freedom for the Croatian people and the homeland". But those received by Argentina in the early post-war years include many prominent personalities of the Croatian independent state, along with those of the Third Reich, who fled from Europe avoiding any consequence, thanks to the ratline that from Italy, with the complicity of the Vatican, led to Buenos Aires.
In this approach to the more or less recent past, one cannot ignore the influence of the paradigm of double totalitarianism, tending to establish an equivalence between the Nazi-Fascist and Communist ideologies and the regimes that produced them – a paradigm strongly pushed within the European Union by Central European countries. Its uncritical acceptance and the lack of a long-term perspective in the study of socialist systems are often the basis of a reversal of perspective, aimed at criminalising antifascism in its entirety and re-evaluating the role of collaborationist regimes during the Second World War, where a real or alleged persecution by communist regimes serves to wash all guilt.
In Croatia, as elsewhere, the ghost of collaborationism progressively regains legitimacy, while the Holocaust is relativised. This memory of the Second World War is closely linked to ultra-nationalist regurgitations and today's identity discourse, passing through the war of the 1990s. This connection was also emphasised by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance of the Council of Europe, which in May 2018 drew a discomforting picture of Croatia, in which the rise of the extreme right-wing and neo-fascist forces would gain strength from the new legitimisation of the memory of the Croatian collaborator state and foster hate speech against old and new minorities. The report ends with a call for the Croatian authorities to react more decisively against hate speech and racist attacks. Similar indications also came in the latest edition of the International Religious Freedom Report of the US State Department.
However, if looking at Croatia on the European and world map, the country is not an exception, between the Visegrad group on the one hand and the long-standing EU member states, where far-right parties get much higher percentages today than in Zagreb. However, these drifts are opposed in Croatia by a civil society that in recent years has shown a new liveliness; a part of the journalism world that, despite a dramatic crisis, still has prestigious figures ready to censor nationalist drifts; and a group of historians who actively refute the role of the subject as a constructor of identity fences.
This more or less compact embankment is opposed to a number of intrinsically linked questions, ranging from the rehabilitation of the NDH to ultra-nationalism and attacks on minorities and secularism. In a strongly polarised country, however, the spaces that the new right is gaining – within major media, prestigious cultural institutions, the academia, and parties across most of the political arc – are likely to tip the scales in its favour.
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